In the moment – power to choose

Let me start this week’s post with a “Health warning”; it’s not written for those suffering from clinical depression.

There are some effective therapies for clinical depression. If you suffer from persistent, long-term unhappiness, please seek medical advice.

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What are you feeling at this precise moment?

Stop reading, and feel.

Okay.

Are you feeling happy? Sad? Bored (oh, I do hope not!)? Frustrated?

If you have a negative feeling, ask yourself the question, “Do I want to feel like this?”

Don’t misunderstand me. Feeling negative is okay – when there’s something to feel negative about. But we often persist in negative feelings for much longer than we need to, and this can become a bad habit.

What we feel is, to a certain extent, our own choice. We can choose to feel happy rather than dismal. We can choose to feel tranquil rather than worried.

When you recognise that you have a negative feeling, the first thing to do is to relax physically. Take a few deep breaths and let your tense muscles relax on each exhalation. Let your shoulders drop. See how the simple act of relaxing has made you feel better?

Now that you’ve relaxed, ask yourself why you have a negative feeling.

Often there is a specific reason. For example, perhaps somebody has been thoughtless and rude, leaving you feeling angry. Or you had a row at breakfast with a family member, and you’re feeling fed up.

If you can identify the reason for the feeling, ask yourself whether there’s anything you can do about it. Doing something positive helps deal with the negative feeling. Can you forgive the person who was rude, for example? You’ll feel much better if you do. Can you, perhaps, plan a shared treat with the family member with whom you had a row?

Sometimes there’s no obvious reason for a negative feeling. That’s okay. It’s not a problem.

Whether or not you know the cause of the negative feeling, the next thing to do is to accept it. Don’t try to push it away, imagining you’re strong and can overcome it. There is no shame in having negative feelings. It is emphatically not a sign of weakness. Accept it; recognise it; it’s your feeling, and you own it.

But do you want to go on experiencing it? No. And you don’t need to. You’ve recognised and accepted it, and that gives you the power to make a choice. You can choose to feel positive. So you might choose to replace frustration during a difficult day with acceptance that some days are like that – and in any case the evening will be pleasant. Or you might choose to replace anger with forgiveness – and, hey, let’s get on with the day!

Then relax again. A few deep breaths. Drop the shoulders. Let the muscles of your back relax. Let the new, positive feeling have space. And then move on, in a happier state of mind.

Have a good week!

In the moment – barbecue time!

Living in the moment is when we pay attention to reality. We stop dwelling on the past, we stop planning for the future, and we allow ourselves to experience the present, the now. By the way, those of you who know me personally will realise that my wife Daphne was equally involved in the barbecue I tell about.

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Yesterday morning I cleaned the barbecue ready to entertain some friends. The weather here was glorious, so I took a bowlful of hot water and detergent into the garden, found a convenient shady spot, and sat down to wash the grill. I enjoyed being consciously aware of the warm breeze, the bright colours of the flowers, the sound of bees. I enjoyed seeing the grill start to shine as I scrubbed it.

It wasn’t perfectly clean – there were some burned on deposits that weren’t going to come off whatever I did.

Some other things that weren’t perfect for the barbecue last night; the patio had been brushed but not pressure washed; the water in the pond was rather murky; the flowers in pots had not been dead-headed; and, worst of all, I’m not particularly skilled at cooking on a barbecue (I started by dropping an uncooked beef-burger onto the ground! And I forgot about the sweetcorn, which is still in the fridge along with a few burgers and sausages that were too charred to serve…).

I would have loved everything to be perfect, but the fact that it wasn’t didn’t spoil my pleasure in the evening at all, nor did it affect my guests’ enjoyment.

Perfection was not necessary!

It’s the same in life, too.

Now, I would be the first to agree that there are some circumstances where we need to do a task to the very best of our ability, and where a mistake can be extremely serious. Driving a car is an obvious example.

But for most of us, most of the time, is perfection necessary? If ‘good enough’ is all you have time or energy to achieve, isn’t that sufficient?

Personally, I find that I am more relaxed and happier by living ‘in the moment’. I enjoy what I am actually doing rather than wishing I’d done better. I enjoy today!

 

In the moment – sleep

Like most people, I have had times when sleep has not come easily. However, matters came to a head when I suffered from an anxiety disorder about eight years ago. One of the symptoms was struggling to sleep well. Part of my therapy taught me how best to approach going to sleep, and I’ve continued to use the techniques. They work! Here they are!

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Sleep.

It’s one of the most important things we do.

The brain uses sleep to consolidate memories and to deal with stress. Lack of sleep impairs our judgement. Did you know that even moderate lack of sleep affects driving as much as exceeding the legal blood alcohol level?

Most of the time we enjoy an adequate amount of sleep. However, we can also have periods when we don’t. Perhaps we work long hours at a stressful job, and struggle to unwind at the end of the day? Perhaps there are matters that are troubling us? Perhaps we’ve allowed bad sleep habits to creep into our routine?

Sleep is a natural action. Our minds and bodies know how to do it; we don’t need to think about it. In fact, if we’re having trouble going to sleep and we try to force ourselves to nod off, we’ll probably make matters worse. It’s much more effective to relax and let sleep happen naturally.

Mindfulness, being ‘in the moment’, can help us to overcome difficulties in going to sleep, Here are some thoughts that may help.

It’s easier to be ‘in the moment’ if that moment is pleasurable.

At bedtime, ideally, we don’t want to be too full; a heavy meal late at night, especially with a bit too much to drink, does not help sleeping! Equally, we don’t want to feel hungry; some people find a hot chocolate before bed helps.

Then there’s the place where we sleep. It should be as comfortable as we can reasonably make it. I’m not the most house-proud person in the world, but my bedroom is tidy. The bed is made earlier in the day, well before I want to sleep in it. The bedding is laundered frequently. My favourite photographs and books are close to me on the bookshelves. I’m careful about the temperature of the room. It’s a pleasure when I lie down in bed; everything feels good.

So, you’re ready for bed. As you approach it, remind yourself that sleep is natural; remind yourself that your bed is comfortable, and that it’s a nice place to be. Be conscious of the way the bed feels as you climb into it. Feel the texture of the bedclothes, and enjoy the feeling. It’s comfortable, a pleasure. Lie down. Switch off the light.

If you’re feeling stressed, give yourself permission to stop worrying. Say it out loud if you like. “I give myself permission to stop worrying and relax.” Say it, and believe it. You’re allowed to stop trying to solve problems. You’re allowed to enjoy the comfort of a good night’s sleep. You’re worth it, and you deserve it.

Enjoy lying there. Let yourself be aware of the resilience of the mattress; the texture of the bedclothes; the cosiness of being snug in bed. Wriggle into your usual sleeping position. Feel how good it is. Then relax, consciously.

A good way of doing this is to start by relaxing the muscles of your scalp, and then, progressively, the rest of your body. Relax your scalp, the back of your neck, your forehead, your cheeks, your jaw, your shoulders, and so on, right down to the tips of your toes.

I find it helps if I synchronise my breathing with the relaxation, like this. I think, “Relax the muscles of your scalp,” as I inhale. Then I exhale gently. “Relax the muscles of your neck,” as I inhale again. Then I exhale gently. “Relax the muscles of your forehead,” as I inhale. And so on. It’s been a long time since I’ve finished the sequence, because I’ve slipped peacefully into sleep…

Sleep well, folks!

I’m sharing my personal experience in the hope that it might help people who occasionally have some difficulty getting off to sleep at night. However, if you have persistent difficulty that significantly reduces the time you sleep, you should seek help from a professional. Also, lack of sleep impairs your ability to drive. If your sleep has been significantly disturbed, you should think carefully about whether you’re safe before driving.

 

In the moment – be happy!

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Life holds many joys; the vigorous growth we’re seeing in gardens and fields; lambs gambolling on the moor; the love of families and friends. Even memories can bring us joy. Every day I look at the photograph of my wedding day – it’s in the bedroom, right in front of me as I drink my first cup of tea. It always lifts my spirits, not just as I remember the day itself, but because the picture reminds me how lucky I am to still be happily married to Daphne after more than forty years.

But life can also feel tough. There may be challenges at work, within the family, within society more broadly. Personally, I am deeply concerned about the political situation in Western democracies, where we seem to be increasingly polarised. We all have times when we feel sad; we all experience anger; we have all felt fear, or apprehension.

Now, here’s an interesting thing. Our brains process our feelings separately from our rational thought. Feelings come from our emotional brain, the amygdala, which is a very primitive part of the brain. When the emotional brain feels we are in a threatening situation it causes adrenalin to flood the body. This quickens the pulse rate dramatically and sharply raises levels of glucose in the blood. This is the “fight or fly” response, preparing us for combat, or for escape.

Once upon a time this was essential for our survival. In Western society that is no longer usually the case. In fact, repeated stimulation of the emotion of fear can lead to anxiety, where even ordinary daily life feels threatening. This can be sufficiently intense to disrupt our lives (been there, done that – it’s horrid).

Our brains process our feelings separately from our rational thought.

Our emotional brain has no way of knowing when it’s making the right response to a situation – it relies on our rational brain to tell it so. If our rational brain is consistently viewing a certain type of situation as a threat, then our emotional brain will believe it. So, for example, if we constantly worry about what’s going on in the world, our rational brain is sending the message, “I’m in a dangerous place. I’d better be on the alert.” Our emotional brain believes what the rational brain tells it, so that at the least sign of threat it goes, “AAAAGGGGHHHH!!! What’s that???”

The good thing is that our emotional brain also believes the rational brain if we consciously think positively about life. When, every night before bed, we write down three things that have gone well during the day, we are sending a powerful message to the emotional brain that life is good. When we count our blessings every morning, we are sending a message to the emotional brain that life is good. When I look at the photograph of my wedding day while drinking my first cup of tea of the day, I’m saying to my emotional brain, “Life is good. I’m happy.”

And when we do that consistently, day after day, the emotional brain gradually turns more to happiness, and less to vigilance. We become happier and more relaxed people.

And, while I don’t expect St Paul had this in mind when he gave the advice originally in his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 4:8), it certainly sums up well a good way of staying positive:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (NIV translation)

I hope you found this interesting and helpful. It’s meant to encourage a more positive, and therefore happier approach to life in those who are basically well. If you are constantly apprehensive, depressed, or listless, to the extent that it affects how you live your life, I strongly advise you to seek professional help.